Some passengers at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport could soon bypass others and breeze through special security checkpoints without so much as taking off their shoes. As long as they're willing to pay, that is.
The airport version of "Lexus lanes" would charge users an annual fee --- probably about $100. Users would undergo a background security screening similar to a credit check. They would then be issued a special credit-card sized card that would contain biometric information. It could contain fingerprint, iris or other information specific to that person.
Once an individual's security information is cleared by the Transportation Security Administration, that person can use the private security lines.
The user would still have to walk though a metal detector and bags would still go through an X-ray procedure.
The world's busiest airport plans to seek proposals for the system from private companies within six weeks. It could be operating on a limited scale at Transportation Security Administration checkpoints by June, Hartsfield-Jackson officials said Thursday.
Hartsfield would implement the so-called "Registered Traveler" system as a 3-year pilot program, with the ability to cancel it with a 30-day notice if it problems occur.
"It appears to be working in Orlando," said Ben DeCosta, the airport's general manager. "We'll have a competition and pick somebody to try it."
The proposal was applauded by some fliers Thursday.
"I'd sign up for it in a heartbeat," said Kevin Jones, a Vinings loan officer who flies twice a month or more. "The convenience would sell it for me. If I can get through security in just a few minutes, it's a big deal."
Hartsfield-Jackson has attempted to keep security lines to 20 minutes or less and largely succeeded the busy Christmas travel season, when they were typically running at 12 to 15 minutes.
Kim Roman, a college counselor from Alpharetta who flies once a month, said she probably wouldn't be interested in the pay-for-convenience lines.
"Security is not that big of a deal for me," Roman said. "I usually get through in 10 minutes or so now."
Roman also had concerns about a private company compiling background information and the potential for its misuse.
"It kinda creeps me out," she said. "It's sort of like Big Brother is watching all the time."
Many of the systems let users stand on a special platform that scans their shoes in place. The user would insert a card containing his or her information and their iris or fingerprints would be scanned to assure the cardholder is the same person trying to clear security.
Henry Morgan, a regional sales manager in Orlando, has been using the system at the Florida airport for more than a year. He used to wait in the public security lines for up to an hour, but now clears the private gates in about 5 minutes. He flies three times a month and likes knowing how long it will take him to get to his flight.
"I don't know how I ever got by without it," he said. "I now know how long it will take me to clear security. Before, I had to guess. The predictability is its key selling point for me."
Steven Brill, chairman and CEO of Verified Identity Pass, one of the companies selling the private security programs, said it is aimed primarily at road warriors such as Morgan.
"You would not buy this if you fly once a year," Brill said. "If you fly once a week, you would."
Brill's service costs $99.95 a year, and in Orlando it permits users to clear security in 30 seconds to 6 minutes, he said. Allison Beer, a Verified Identity Pass vice president, said the company has 35,000 users, mostly in Orlando. Airports in Cincinnati, San Jose, Indianapolis, Newark and New York are also testing the Registered Traveler program, she said.
"Hartsfield is a big deal in the world of air travel, and our marketing studies indicate there is significant interest in this in Atlanta," she said.
Debbie Seagraves, executive director of Georgia's American Civil Liberties Union, said her organization has problems with the program.
"The main one is that it's based on a faulty premise to begin with," she said. "It's based on the theory that if you have a good credit history, you won't be a terrorist."
She said the system also establishes a caste system among air passengers.
"There's something inherently classist about the idea that you don't have to be inconvenienced if you can pay a little more," she said.
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